Aligning Our Will With God’s Will: On the Meaning of Bat Mitzvah

Aligning Our Will With God’s Will: On the Meaning of Bat Mitzvah

Over the last few months, Moriah and I have enjoyed many mature and thoughtful conversations about what it really means to be a Bat Mitzvah. But instead of rehashing another one of my shpielen, I thought I’d take a different tack and inquire as to the meaning of Bat Mitzvah or Bar Mitzvah in the literal sense of the term. We are accustomed to using the term to refer to the celebratory event, but of course we also know that it is the occasion on which a young man or woman becomes obligated in the mitzvot. That’s certainly a significant event, but why is it cause for celebration? Of course, the parents get to declare that they are no longer responsible for the child’s sins - but that’s hardly reason for Moriah to celebrate.

In explaining the reasoning for this constituting a Seudat Mitzvah, R. Shlomo Luria in his Yam Shel Shlomo (Bava Kama 7:37) refers to the classic passage in Kiddushin and Bava Kama in regard to Rav Yosef, who was a suma, blind. The Hakhamim and Rabbi Yehuda had debated whether a suma is obligated in mitzvot. Rav Yosef originally thought that if the Hakhamim are correct that a blind person is exempt from mitzvot, he would celebrate because it is better to perform mitzvot voluntarily. However, once he heard that גדול המצווה ועושה ממי שאינו מצווה ועושה, he changed his mind and said he would thrown a party if someone told him that the halakhah follows Rabbi Yehuda that a blind person is obligated in mitzvot.

Many commentators wonder why it’s considered so impressive to perform an act out of obligation. Isn’t it more remarkable to opt in even when there is no obligation? There are numerous answers, but my favorite is offered by two of the Rishonim, Tosafot ha-Rosh and Ritva. Both explain that there are two levels one can reach in the fulfillment of mitzvot. One level is that of a voluntary mitzvah, one which is a mitzvah perhaps for others or in other circumstances, such as giving tzedakah even when there is no needy individual approaching me to give. But a second level is the fulfillment of the divine command. Mitzvot are not just good deeds but tzivuyim, commandments, binding obligations. In the words of Ritva, we perform them because they are a gezeirat ha-melekh, the king’s decree. Even when I perform a voluntary mitzvah, what I’m doing is performing an act that the King has already indicated is obligatory under some circumstances, and accepting that obligation upon myself. Even the volunteer is fulfilling an existing decree, even if it is not directly incumbent upon him or her. And that’s why gadol metzuveh ve’oseh: one who performs the mitzvah out of an obligation is performing the very quintessence of what a mitzvah truly is meant to be.

The Yam Shel Shlomo uses this to account for the notion that a Bar Mitzvah - and the exact same logic applies to a Bat Mitzvah, which was not generally celebrated at that time - is an occasion for a Seudat Mitzvah, a special festive meal: it is when a child finally can receive full credit for the mitzvot. True, the Bat Mitzvah girl is now responsible for her own actions, and may even be punished accordingly. And yes, the parents are off the hook (Barukh Hashem!). But the more important point is that Moriah, you are now obligated in the mitzvot independently, and the opportunity to fulfill the mitzvot as a metzuveh ve’oseh is, as we learn from Rav Yosef, cause for celebration.

That, of course, is the literal meaning of a Bat Mitzvah: one who fully participates as a full member of the community of those who were charged with the mitzvot at Sinai, one who is mature enough for Hashem to entrust the Torah - and emerge, to play on the words of Rav Yosef, as a gadol ha-metzuveh ve’oseh, a gadol, a halakhic adult, who is fully included in the commandments.

But there is a further point we may make that takes the combined idea of the Rosh and Ritva, alongside the Yam Shel Shlomo, one step further. Certainly, gadol ha-metzuveh ve’oseh. But even greater is one who fulfills both simultaneously: one who performs the mitzvot out of a sense of commandedness but also because this is simply how she wishes to live her life. Which is, of course, why it’s called a Seudat Mitzvah. Literally, of course, this just means an obligatory meal. In fact, there are all sorts of halakhot associated with with such a meal; what foods one is obligated to eat; the need for the Seudah to take place on the same day that, for example, one makes a siyyum, as Moriah is doing today; and the conditions under which one may opt not to bentch for the larger group with which one began the Seudah. Yet, of course, when we say Seudat Mitzvah we mean a celebratory meal. It’s what Rav Yosef called a yoma tava le-rabbanan, a Yom Tov for the rabbis (which of course, in classic Jewish style, is synonymous with getting to eat). So in the end, there is no contradiction between the mitzvah and the joy; one who truly feels deeply connected to the mitzvot, and to performing Hashem’s will, will see the opportunity of obligation not as a burden but as something to be celebrated.

I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a Bat Mitzvah so enthusiastic to throw herself into her learning and step into her new role. Moriah rocked Shabbat and Eruvin in about three weeks altogether - okay, that may have also had something to do with our working under some time constraints - and is always seeing how she can learn more Tanakh, more Mishnah, more Gemara - including already having a tentative plan in place for her to learn major chunks of Tanakh this coming summer.

Moriah is a big fan of Ishay Ribbo, and so it’s no surprise or coincidence that this same concept appears prominently in a classic Mishnah in Avot and in Achat u-Letamid, one of her favorite songs. The Mishnah says

עשה רצונו כרצונך, כדי שיעשה רצונך כרצונו.
Make His will align with your will, so that He makes your will align with His will.

Ishay Ribbo plays off the Mishnah to put it a bit differently:

ואני רוצה לעשות רצונך כרצונך
באמת ובתמים ,אחת ולתמיד
בלי מסכים בלי מסכות בלי לרצות לרצות
באמת ובתמים ,אחת ולתמיד

Ribbo is offering an exquisite tefilla that he merit to perform רצונך כרצונך, meaning not just to perform the mitzvot in the technical sense, but to do so undisguised: with full alignment between his own inner will and that of Hashem. But the essential ideas of Ishay Ribbo and his source, the Mishnah in Avot, are essentially the same.

This too is our berakhah for you, Moriah: that as you transform from an אינה מצווה ועושה to a מצווה ועושה, which is precisely what we celebrate today, you continue to hold onto both simultaneously. That you continue to make siyyumim and celebrate Seudot mitzvah as both joyous and obligatory - with the two so deeply aligned that not only fail to contradict one another, but that they continue in harmony and alignment.

And may Hashem bless you that just as you continue to make רצונו כרצונך, His will your own, that Hashem in turn blesses you that all your deepest wishes be fulfilled - לעשות רצונך כרצונו.